By Kate Goggin
Many people believe business travel is glamorous. To visit exotic locales and be wined and dined on the company dime sounds like a dream come true. But ask a married traveler with a family and you’ll find that the reality can be quite a nightmare.
The National Association of Business Travelers (NABT), a US based travel industry group, reported that more than three-quarters of married business travelers find it difficult to be away from home, compared with about half of their non-married counterparts.
Missing a child’s class recital, a spouse’s birthday or a wedding anniversary takes its toll over time. The traveler may feel guilty and left out of the day-to-day intimacy of family life while the at-home spouse may feel neglected and dumped on with the total weight of family responsibility. All of these emotions multiply exponentially when the family is an expatriate one. Moving to a foreign country with a new house, new language and new school is exotic enough for most families. Most kids don’t need half their support network walking out the door to spice things up!
To combat travel-related stress, family members need to accept the limitations of what my family calls “frequent traveler syndrome.” The syndrome begins when a pending trip is approved and ends when the traveler is back in groove with the family time zone.
COUNT ON BAD TIMING:
The dates for upcoming travel are strategically selected for work reasons and they always conflict with the family schedule.
- The best remedy is to plan ahead. The traveler can take care of home repairs and bill paying before a trip in order to make a contribution to the household chores, while the at-home spouse can be flexible when celebrating special occasions. Organizing a birthday a day early is not usually a problem; it’s completely forgetting the birthday because of travel stress that sinks the relationship.
- Consider combining a business trip with a leisure trip. This gives the at-home spouse a peek at the high-pressure demands the traveler faces, and both can share some quality time in the process.
COUNT ON AN EARLY CHECK OUT:
Once the dates are set, there is a pre-departure malaise that kicks in a few days before the trip. The traveler starts to “check out” mentally from family life, already focusing on the upcoming business trip and all the waiting work.
- The day before departure is not the day to discuss hot and heavy family topics or anything that requires strategic planning. It’s just not worth the anguish of communicating with a spouse who is only half there.
- Avoid a big Bon Voyage scene especially when kids are involved. Tears and clutching good-byes will only make the little ones more anxious and upset about missing the travelling parent. Try to leave from home and then when you return from the airport engage them in an activity right away.
COUNT ON LONELINESS:
The stress from the actual physical absence cannot be underestimated. Once that plane takes off, no spousal body double is waiting to help with the leaking roof, the dead car battery, or the sick child.
- The only way to overcome it (and remain faithful) is to create an independent support network. Dinner is always the toughest time. The fourth night of conversation with a three-year-old is difficult even for the most patient parent. Rally friends or put the word out and form a supper club. There are lots of people in the same boat and connecting with just one or two of them will make a huge difference during a travel week.
- Talk once a day. Email helps but is not the same. Fear and love cannot be heard through an email message. The best way is to call at a designated time. Kids look forward to that time all day, saving up their important news items to share. The call is a crucial substitute for that physical connection.
COUNT ON A SLOW BURN RETURN:
When a time zone has been crossed, it will take one day of recovery for every hour lost. Travel is physically demanding and most frequent travelers struggle with constant fatigue.
- Everything is booked solid when travelling from early breakfast meetings through late night negotiations. Most travelers only want to be “unplugged” when they return home. Family members who have been waiting patiently to attend an event together must understand that the traveler is fighting exhaustion. Reschedule after rest.
- For the traveler, it’s tough to accept that life continued to go on without him. He can’t expect everyone to drop what he or she is doing when he returns. Extra patience is needed all around to integrate back into family life.
Absence does make the heart grow fonder and travel, exotic or not, makes everyone appreciate each other a bit more. Just remember it’s a tough road for all involved and a family that works together can soar together.
www.expatexpert.com – support website hosted by Robin Pascoe author of Culture Shock! A Parent’s Guide, Times Editions, 1993; Culture Shock! A Wife’s Guide, Times Editions, 1992, and Moveable Marriages: How to Successfully Pack Up a Marriage on the Move.
On the Road Again: Travel, Love, and Marriage by Jim Cote and William Hendricks. (Audio download from Amazon.com.)
The Emotional Cycle of Deployment: A Military Family Perspective
– extensive information on the emotional cycles of deployment, written for the military but relevant to anyone whose spouse is on an unaccompanied assignment.
Kate Goggin is a Foreign Service spouse (FAS) and freelance writer. Currently living in Northern Virginia, she is available for short and long term writing assignments. Visit her website at http://www.kategoggin.com.